May 18, 2011
This week in Buzz Talk we catch up with Prishram Jain, a principal at TACT Architecture. Prishram was the lead architect on the much-discussed King Plus Condos project soon to grace the up-and-comin’ King East neighbourhood. In our wide-ranging conversation, Prishram told us about ‘polite’ architecture in Toronto, the views at King Plus, and what it’s like to be mentored by none other than Richard Meier.


Was architecture an interest of yours even as a kid? What was the general trajectory of your path to working as an architect?

Prishram Jain: Well it wasn’t exactly clear when I was a child that architecture was what I wanted to do when I grew up but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. As kids, my brothers and I would build cities complete with airports and everything out of toys in our kitchen and living room and navigate very carefully through the city as we played in it.

I also liked to help out with carpentry projects around the house. All this led to me studying architecture first at community college and then going off to university and then ultimately studying at Cornell University, where I got my professional degree. From there, I had the privilege of having my architecture take me to both to New York and to places abroad – Paris and Rome – and then ultimately back to Toronto.

BBH: What should people know about King Plus Condos from an architectural-standpoint?

PJ: Architecturally, King Plus Condos has a clear mandate. There’s a heritage building at the base and then a tower up above. It’s a clear example of modernism and I think the clarity of the idea is what people will perceive as they pass on the street: the clear tower – glass and steel – sitting on top of the masonry, heritage building from the 1860s.

BBH: At the King Plus ‘Insiders’ Launch’ you spoke rather passionately about incorporating the site’s historic building into the King Plus project. Can you tell us about why that’s important and what it adds to the finished building?

PJ: I think the public needs to have some respect for – or an homage to – the past. What may cause people to look twice as they pass the building will be the fact that there is something entirely different at the base of this otherwise glass and steel condominium tower. At the base will be this building derived from the mid-19th century, and, as a result, it’s important for people to know that this an adaptive re-use of an existing building. In this green era that we live in it’s important – both to us as architects, and to the public – that we preserve our heritage but still move forward in terms of development in our city.

BBH: We understand that the building itself has a rather colourful history. . .

PJ: Yes, it does! It was originally called the Grand National Hotel and was, as I said, built in the 1860s. It served as a hotel and was then added-onto to became a hotel and a tavern. The King Eddie was the principal hotel in the city at the time, but for a lot of the working class who came through town, the Grand National was where they’d reside. It then evolved into another hotel; it was also used as a furniture showroom; it was an architect’s office; a lighting store; a nightclub; and, until recently, a law practice.

BBH: What can you tell us about the space of the suites themselves? Is there one in particular that you would love to call home?

PJ: The space is oriented such that it has a narrow front facing King Street and a broad front facing west (downtown). So we oriented most of the suites to capitalize on the downtown view, which is remarkably unobstructed.

I’ve actually lived in many of the buildings that I’ve designed, and as for this particular building, I think, aside from choosing the penthouses, I’d go for the one right in the middle of a typical floor. The suite, if you’re going from north to south, faces west from the middle of the building. It has a sixteen-foot by fourteen-foot wide living room facing downtown, which I’d imagine, as the sun is setting and the lights of the city are coming on, would be a great spot to inhabit. The bedroom is located near the rear and has a large walk-in closet. There’s also an office at the rear of the suite, but the predominant living space has a picture-perfect view of downtown.

BBH: What are some of your favourite buildings in Toronto, architecturally? What is it about them that catches your eye or pleases your mind?

PJ: Well, I think that architecture is a reflection of culture. I come across people who lament the fact – at least as they perceive it – that Toronto’s architecture isn’t that great. The architecture in Toronto is a reflection not only of Torontonians but all Canadians; we are conservative, polite people. Our buildings are a reflection of that. If you look at Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario addition, it’s a Toronto-version of Frank Gehry; It’s a polite version. We are not the kind of people that you might find in Manhattan or Los Angeles, who prefer to have buildings that assert themselves. We’re a culture of fitting in and our buildings fit in.

Now, having said that, you can fit in and disappear or you can fit in and still make something of a statement. One building that comes to mind – and I hope you’ll excuse me for using one of my own examples – is 18 Yorkville. I worked on that project while I was at Architect’s Alliance. It’s a typical example of a tower fitting on a base that itself responds to the street and to the wider neighbourhood. The tower, meanwhile, is set back and projects up and beyond. And then on the garden side the tower comes down and asserts itself on the ground. The top speaks to the city, and the base speaks to the neighbourhood.
Another example that fits in, I’d say without making a statement, is one of the early condos built in the loft-style on Camden St. (about ten or twelve years ago). It’s a good example of a handsome, contextual condominium designed to respond to what people want in a certain neighbourhood – but it’s so contextual that it disappears. So that, too, is indicative of the Toronto style.

BBH: Do you regret that there isn’t a stronger demand for bolder kinds of architectural statements?

PJ: Actually, I think we’re moving towards there being more demand. In this industry we’re often faced with the dilemma of wanting to design thing in a very modern vein but our clients telling us, ‘You can’t do that’ or ‘The market isn’t ready,’ but we’re finding increasingly that the people who appreciate modern design are finally coming into their own in terms of age and income level.

For example, we’re working on townhome projects right now throughout the city and all of them are deliberately very modern projects. That’s because the demographic that will be buying them grew up with modernism as their premier taste. So I think we’re heading there and eventually we’ll have a certain demographic that not only aspires to modern design but has the financial wherewithal to back it up.

BBH: Which architect, living or dead, would you most like to grab a cup of coffee with? And what would you ask them?

PJ: I’d say Richard Meier. It’s no secret in my office that he’s my mentor – he went to Cornell, too. His style is a very clean, clear and crisp architectural style. A lot of people say, ‘All of his buildings look alike.’ Well, that’s because I believe you need to be prolific at something before you become very good at it. He’s a very good at what he does because he’s done it many times. Every building of his is a very clear statement. There’s a certain purity to his vision. And, picking up on what we I was saying earlier, not only do his buildings assert themselves but they’re also contextual.

BBH: Is he still working?

PJ: He is. I actually visited him at his office in New York about five years ago. His office is two-levels in an old warehouse building which houses about one hundred staff – he’s still as prolific as ever. He gave me a book after we had talked for awhile. At first it seemed that the book had very little inside but then I realized that it showed all the different whites that he’d used in his buildings. You know, I’m in the design industry and know that there are many different types of white but this book was full of white! It really did show me the level of subtlety that he considers in his architecture. He was a very gracious man and it was exciting to meet someone who has won the respect of an entire industry.

BBH: Are there any exciting projects on the horizon for you that you can tell us about?

PJ: Well, the townhome projects I alluded earlier are coming up in Leslieville. Again, because the market is there, we get to design crisp, clean, modern statements. It’s funny, people are more than willing to accept modern interiors but, for whatever reason, when it comes to modern exteriors – for low-rise in particular – people don’t typically want to wear their style on their house. But these 160 homes (across three sites) are each unique and modern – and they should be released in about a month or so.

And then there’s another project we’re working on, also in the east end at Carlaw Ave. and Dundas St. East.. This one is a more contextual project and flanks both Dundas St. and Carlaw Ave. and has a beautiful courtyard. I like to think we’re living up to my mentor Richard Meier!
Our thanks to Prishram Jain for taking the time to talk with us!

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